Syria's partial 'truce': A nod to pragmatism?

Briefing Note

Syria's partial 'truce': A nod to pragmatism?

16 Feb 2016

The Munich agreement on a 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria is a rare show of unity between world powers on the conflict, but the situation on the ground may prevent its implementation.

Images of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry sharing a platform on Syria are hardly new. But the announcement of a prospective "cessation of hostilities" in the country suggests much-needed progress is being made in the complex conflict. It also indicates that Moscow and Washington have started to pull in the same direction, at least to some extent.

While not explicitly a ceasefire, the fighting is meant to stop a week after the agreement by the 17-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG) was announced on February 12. The break will allow delivery of vital aid supplies to hard-to-reach areas of the embattled country. With the United Nations-backed peace talks in Geneva suspended this month following the Assad regime's offensive on Aleppo, the ISSG also hopes the agreement may restart peace talks between rebels and government.

But the truce may run aground before it begins. Tensions between Turkey and Russia on the Turkish border, Russian strikes on rebels backed by the West, and the apparent absence of support of either the Assad regime or major rebel groups for the agreement all conspire against its implementation.

Syria's rebel landscape is very complicated.

Halting strikes on ISIS or al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of the agreement; both will continue to be pursued by the Russian and US-led coalition. However, since Russia began its military operations in Syria last September, there has been a gulf in understanding between Moscow and Washington over who is deemed a terrorist or extremist.

Russian airstrikes supporting the Syrian Arab Army and pro-Assad militias have targeted rebel groups who the West and its allies in the Arab world consider to be moderate opposition forces. The new agreement, however, does not seem to include anything that would stop Russia targeting more moderate opposition forces. While ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra were clearly not at the negotiating table in Munich, neither were prominent armed rebel groups who have worked together with Jabhat al-Nusra in the past.

A number of these rebel factions have said they will not honour the agreement because they do not believe Russia will end strikes in support of the Syrian regime. Spokesmen for groups including the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham reiterated their demand that President Bashar al-Assad be removed from power for a truce to go ahead. Sources  close to Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist and Salafi groups that have at times allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, suggest that the group also has reservations about what was agreed in Munich.

Syria's rebel landscape is very complicated. The civil conflict has dragged on since 2011, giving birth to a plethora of armed groups that represent different cities and regions, as well as political and religious ideologies. A recent report by the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, If the Castle Falls, gives an indication of how diverse these groups are.

Pragmatism seems to be a factor behind the agreement.

Such a drawn-out conflict has undoubtedly taken its toll on all sides. It has weakened ranks and led to loss of territory, defections, and other challenges. For the rebel groups, often smaller and not as well-organised as their al-Qaeda rival Jabhat al-Nusra, siding with extremist elements for short-term gains against a common enemy is a pragmatic battlefield solution. Pragmatism also seems to be a factor behind the partial ceasefire agreement. While the US and allies continue to assert that Russia needs to halt its bombardments of moderate rebel forces, the fact that this was not stipulated in the agreement would seem to indicate that necessity is leading the way.

The recent advance on Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been pivotal in providing momentum to Assad's regime. The government felt chronically overstretched before Russian intervention helped turn the tide. In the last two weeks, Syrian forces have nearly encircled rebel areas of Aleppo, which could soon fall under complete siege if the last route to Turkey from the city is severed. Iranian-backed Shia militias and Hizbullah fighters are thought to have been instrumental in these gains. UN agencies fear that the advances could lead to up to 300,000 civilians being cut off from food supplies. A new wave of refugees is already queuing at the Turkish border.

Events in recent week are a considerable development in a conflict caught more or less in stalemate since 2012. For four years, the regime has controlled the western half of the country, with rebel factions holding the east and a small enclave of Kurdish control in the north. A complete siege would prove a major boon to regime control of Western Syria but would also disrupt the international order. The Washington Institute's Andrew Tabler suggests the fall of Aleppo would represent "a tremendous loss for the U.S. and its traditional allies: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan."

The "cessation of hostilities" agreement may also affect geopolitics in other ways. The timing of the agreement came only days after a number of Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, announced plans to deploy ground forces in Syria. The agreement may make it more difficult for them to become involved on the ground. Speaking ahead of the Munich announcement, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said any action by the Gulf Arab states may lead to a "permanent war." He was implying that their involvement could reap the same consequences Afghanistan and Libya have seen.

While cynicism and reservations surrounding the Munich agreement are justified, given the depths to which Syria's conflict has sunk, the move must be welcomed. Giving aid agencies the chance to deliver much-needed supplies to vulnerable Syrians should be a priority for both sides of the conflict. Crucially, small steps on small agreements may become the vital stepping-stones for establishing a more widespread, and permanent, cessation of hostilities.

This briefing was first published on 12 February 2016. It was updated on 16 February 2016.


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